Am I my brother’s keeper?

The continuing push-and-shove between Council member Carl Mumpower and the Asheville Police Department is instructive for all city residents. The APD was arresting someone for cocaine possession when Mumpower, who’s been walking the projects in order to make his point about local drug trafficking, asked them to look into the sale of yet more cocaine at a housing project where he’d just been solicited. I am struck by Mumpower’s determination, and I think the issues he raises demand answers.

Unlike me, Mumpower is a Republican and a Christian. But like me, he’s also a psychologist, and as such, he’s probably experienced exasperation in trying to treat someone with a crack addiction or in seeing the havoc the addiction wreaks on families. I, too, have walked the projects alone, dozens of times, in order to register voters (though not at night). And like Mumpower, I have often seen wild-eyed guys jump out from behind buildings, racing to make the first contact and unload their wares as I’ve driven slowly along, voter-registration forms in hand, in my white Ford Ranger with a North Carolina “BUCK BUSH” tag on the back. I never met one of those dealers who wanted to register to vote or who said they’d voted. Instead, a what’s-the-point attitude has dominated their responses to my queries.

Are these guys who are so eager to sell drugs also addicts? As a psychologist who’s seen firsthand the significant changes in the state’s mental-health-care system over the past five years, I can’t help but wonder. Unquestionably, there is less treatment available now for addictions than there was before mental-health “reform.” One major barrier is that unless you’ve got Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance (with a hefty deductible, you can bet), you are now considered a “state client.” That means you receive minimal, cohort-group therapy and maybe some medications if they’re needed and you’re persistent enough (addicts are generally persistent about obtaining illegal drugs, not legal ones).

If you think this situation is bad, consider that people with physical illnesses don’t even get that much. Perhaps the idea is that crazy people can kill you, so you have to do something about it, whereas physically ill people (thankfully) mostly suffer in silence.

As Mayor Bellamy and the progressive caucus on City Council correctly point out, other social demographics such as education and income levels and race are also associated with illegal drug use. But if we don’t provide mental-health care that treats addictions, we are left with only one option: Arrest the dealers and aggressively patrol the places where the illegal drugs are sold.

Families traumatized by members who would lie to Jesus himself don’t need to be told to wait for mental-health reform to catch up with the need for treatment. And after seeing addicts sell all their relatives’ valuables and end up tussling with police, this psychologist realized that no background mental-health issue can be dealt with as long as the addiction remains in place—and swore that she would never again treat a client with a cocaine addiction. And so we’re back to Mumpower walking the projects to shine a spotlight on what’s going on.

In my opinion, however, not all illegal drugs are created equal (this probably very quickly distinguishes me from Mumpower). There is no evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug; nonetheless, it has become the 21st century’s flagship prohibition drug. And to compound the confusion, much of the research on the drug has been done at the behest of National Institute of Mental Health—an arm of the U.S. government, which is firmly committed to keeping marijuana criminalized.

There’s no denying that people in certain occupations, such as surgeons and drivers of big rigs, need to be monitored for marijuana use, but even this argument is inseparable from broader power relations. When was the last time you heard of a surgeon who’d been asked to hand over some urine? And let’s not forget that marijuana is useful in treating a variety of physical ailments, such as glaucoma, chemotherapy-induced nausea and chronic pain. Furthermore, employers’ demands that they be able to peer into your urine and discern what you’ve been up to when you get off of work amount to intimidation—a tool used to maintain a coerced, browbeaten work force.

At this point in the slow development of homo hominus americanus, the alternative to both the “legalize it all” and the “jail all the dopers” schools of thought is a more nuanced approach involving non-arm-twisting monitoring of drug usage along with a healthy respect for the effects of all drugs, whether legal or illegal.

Clearly, however, people who use crack or meth are asking for a world of trouble. These drugs should be off limits, and dealers should be severely punished, with jail time the treatment of choice.

[Psychologist Marsha V. Hammond lives and practices in Asheville.]

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